05 Apr 2013
Murder in the Cathedral at San Diego Opera
Italian composer Ildebrando Pizzetti (1880-1968) wrote more than fifteen operas, of which almost none are staged today.
Opera San Jose has capped a wholly winning season with an emotionally engaging, thrillingly sung, enticingly fresh rendition of Puccini’s immortal masterpiece La bohème.
On Saturday evening April 22, 2017, San Diego Opera presented Giuseppe Verdi’s La traviata at the Civic Theater. Director Marta Domingo updated the production from the constrictions of the nineteenth century to the freedom of the nineteen twenties. Violetta’s fellow courtesans and their dates wore fascinating outfits and, at one point, danced the Charleston to what looked like a jazz combo playing Verdi’s score.
Thomas Adès’s third opera, The Exterminating Angel, is a dizzying, sometimes frightening, palimpsest of texts (literary and cinematic) and music, in which ceaseless repetitions of the past - inexact, ever varying, but inescapably compulsive - stultify the present and deny progress into the future. Paradoxically, there is endless movement within a constricting stasis. The essential elements collide in a surreal Sartrean dystopia: beasts of the earth (live sheep and a simulacra of a bear) roam, a disembodied hand floats through the air, water spouts from the floor and a burning cello provides the flames upon which to roast the sacrificial lambs. No wonder that when the elderly Doctor tries to restore order through scientific rationalism he is told, “We don't want reason! We want to get out of here!”
Is A Dog’s Heart even an opera? It is sung by opera singers to live music. Alexander Raskatov’s score, however, is secondary to the incredible stage visuals. Whatever it is, actor/director Simon McBurney’s first stab at opera is fantastic theatre. Its revival at Dutch National Opera, where it premiered in 2010, is hugely welcome.
I kept hearing from knowledgeable opera fanatics that the Israeli Opera (IO) in Tel Aviv was a surprising sure bet. So I made my way to the Homeland to hear how supposedly great the quality of opera was. And man, I was in for treat.
At Phoenix’s Symphony Hall on Friday evening April 7, Arizona Opera offered its final presentation of the 2016-2017 season, Gioachino Rossini’s Cinderella (La Cenerentola). The stars of the show were Daniela Mack as Cinderella, called Angelina in the opera, and Alek Shrader as Don Ramiro. Actually, Mack and Shrader are married couple who met singing these same roles at San Francisco Opera.
On Saturday evening April 1, 2017, Placido Domingo and Los Angeles Opera celebrated their tenth year of training young opera artists in the Domingo-Colburn-Stein Program. From the singing I heard, they definitely have something of which to be proud.
The town’s name itself “Baden-Baden” (named after Count Baden) sounds already enticing. Built against the old railway station, its Festspielhaus programs the biggest stars in opera for Germany’s largest auditorium. A Mecca for music lovers, this festival house doesn’t have its own ensemble, but through its generous sponsoring brings the great productions to the dreamy idylle.
The Festspielhaus in Baden-Baden pretty much programs only big stars. A prime example was the Fall Festival this season. Grigory Sokolov opened with a piano recital, which I did not attend. I came for Cecilia Bartoli in Bellini’s Norma and Christian Gerhaher with Schubert’s Die Winterreise, and Anne-Sophie Mutter breathtakingly delivering Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto together with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Robin Ticciati, the ballerino conductor, is not my favorite, but together they certainly impressed in Mendelssohn.
Mahler as dramatist! Mahler Symphony no 8 with Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall. Now we know why Mahler didn't write opera. His music is inherently theatrical, and his dramas lie not in narrative but in internal metaphysics. The Royal Festival Hall itself played a role, literally, since the singers moved round the performance space, making the music feel particularly fluid and dynamic. This was no ordinary concert.
Imagine a fête galante by Jean-Antoine Watteau brought to life, its colour and movement infusing a bucolic scene with charm and theatricality. Jean-Philippe Rameau’s opéra-ballet Les fêtes d'Hébé, ou Les talens lyriques, is one such amorous pastoral allegory, its three entrées populated by shepherds and sylvans, real characters such as Sapho and mythological gods such as Mercury.
Whatever one’s own religious or spiritual beliefs, Bach’s St Matthew Passion is one of the most, perhaps the most, affecting depictions of the torturous final episodes of Jesus Christ’s mortal life on earth: simultaneously harrowing and beautiful, juxtaposing tender stillness with tragic urgency.
Lindy Hume’s sensational La bohème at the Berliner Staatsoper brings out the moxie in Puccini. Abdellah Lasri emerged as a stunning discovery. He floored me with his tenor voice through which he embodied a perfect Rodolfo.
Listening to Moritz Eggert’s Caliban is the equivalent of watching a flea-ridden dog chasing its own tail for one-and-half hours. It scratches, twitches and yelps. Occasionally, it blinks pleadingly, but you can’t bring yourself to care for such a foolish animal and its less-than-tragic plight.
A large audience packed into the Wigmore Hall to hear the two Baroque rarities featured in this melodious performance by Christian Curnyn’s Early Opera Company. One was by the most distinguished ‘home-grown’ eighteenth-century musician, whose music - excepting some of the lively symphonies - remains seldom performed. The other was the work of a Saxon who - despite a few ups and downs in his relationship with the ‘natives’ - made London his home for forty-five years and invented that so English of genres, the dramatic oratorio.
On March 24, 2017, Los Angeles Opera revived its co-production of Jacques Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann which has also been seen at the Mariinsky Opera in Leningrad and the Washington National Opera in the District of Columbia.
Ermonela Jaho is fast becoming a favourite of Covent Garden audiences, following her acclaimed appearances in the House as Mimì, Manon and Suor Angelica, and on the evidence of this terrific performance as Puccini’s Japanese ingénue, Cio-Cio-San, it’s easy to understand why. Taking the title role in the first of two casts for this fifth revival of Moshe Leiser’s and Patrice Caurier’s 2003 production of Madame Butterfly, Jaho was every inch the love-sick 15-year-old: innocent, fresh, vulnerable, her hope unfaltering, her heart unwavering.
Calliope Tsoupaki’s latest opera, Fortress Europe, premiered as spring began taming the winter storms in the Mediterranean.
To celebrate its 40th anniversary New Sussex Opera has set itself the challenge of bringing together the six scenes - sometimes described as six discrete ‘tone poems’ - which form Delius’s A Village Romeo and Juliet into a coherent musico-dramatic narrative.
Reflections on former visits to Opera Holland Park usually bring to mind late evening sunshine, peacocks, Japanese gardens, the occasional chilly gust in the pavilion and an overriding summer optimism, not to mention committed performances and strong musical and dramatic values.
Italian composer Ildebrando Pizzetti (1880-1968) wrote more than fifteen operas, of which almost none are staged today.
A member of the same generation as Ottorino Respighi and Gian Francesco Malipiero, he started out to be a playwright and had two works staged before he entered the conservatory of his native Parma to study music. Some years later, Pizzetti was a conservatory teacher and administrator, first in Florence and then in Milan. In 1936 he succeeded Respighi at the Academy of St. Cecilia in Rome where his students included Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco. Pizzetti was influenced by poet and playwright Gabriele d'Annunzio and he wrote incidental music for several of the latter’s plays. In 1939 Pizzetti was named to the Italian Royal Academy. Although his relations with the fascist government of Italy were occasionally stormy, they were often positive, and that may be one reason why his works have seldom been produced since then.
He composed his first opera, Sabina, in 1897. Between then and the premiere of Murder in the Cathedral (Assassinio nella Cattedrale) on March 1, 1958, he completed eleven others. Murder in the Cathedral is two-act opera with a libretto by the composer based on Alberto Castelli’s Italian translation of T.S. Eliot's play of the same name. It deals with the killing of Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket by followers of King Henry II in the twelfth century. Henry is supposed to have asked if no one would rid him of the troublesome priest. That may have been all that was necessary for his followers to assume they had reason to murder Becket.
On April 2, 2013, San Diego Opera staged Pizzetti’s Murder in the Cathedral with leading Italian bass Ferruccio Furlanetto in the title role. General and Artistic Director Ian D. Campbell staged the work in a straightforward manner that made the story easy to grasp. Ralph Funicello’s unit set, consisting of bright colored stained glass windows with steps and platforms, looked like the inside of a great cathedral. Lighting was a large part of the décor and Alan Burrett’s designs were most effective. Costume designer Denitza Bliznakova dressed the Archbishop in the timeless robes of the Catholic Church, the First and Second Chorus soloists in crimson, and the remaining choristers in the muted colors of twelfth century England.
Susan Neves (in red) as the First Chorus
The story of this opera, the conflict between Church and state, seems to have gone on forever. I was reminded of the murder of Martin Luther King so many centuries later. Like Becket, King knew that it could happen. Italian bass Ferruccio Furlanetto excels in the interpretation of roles on both sides of this conflict: Philip II in Don Carlo and Becket. Murder in the Cathedral is a thinking person’s opera. Furlanetto is in the prime of his career and his opulent voice flowed over the orchestra and into the auditorium like a magnificent force of nature. This is an opera he was born to sing. He is also a fine actor and when he was on stage you could not take your eyes off him.
Susan Neves and Helene Schneiderman sang the First and Second Chorus who commented on action. Since there was no love interest, their parts were much smaller than that of the Archbishop, but both sang with ringing tones. The other star of this performance was the San Diego Opera Chorus led by Charles F. Prestinari. Their harmonies were strong and they coalesced as a group. They really did not get to act as individuals because they were a unified congregation. For the finale they were joined by the excellent Children’s Chorus fro St. Paul’s Cathedral.
Helene Schneiderman as the Second Chorus with Susan Neves as the First Chorus in the background
Alan Glassman was the trumpet voiced Herald who announced each arrival. His presence in the part was true luxury casting. The other roles were actually parts of trios or quartets. The three priests who sang with dramatics tones as they tried to protect their Archbishop were tenor Greg Fedderly, bass-baritone Kristopher Irmiter, and bass Gregory Reinhart. The four tempters were also the four knights who eventually killed Becket. Tenor Joel Sorenson had a high lying difficult part but acquitted it with finesse. Baritone Malcolm MacKenzie, the smooth voiced Count Di Luna of the AZ Opera Il Trovatore, was a dramatic Second Knight, while bass-baritone Ashraf Sewailam and bass Kevin Langan, the sonorous Third and Fourth Knights, were properly villainous thugs.
Conductor Donato Renetti made a very auspicious San Diego Opera debut with this performance. The large orchestra responded with precise playing of this new and interestingly orchestrated score. I hope we will hear a great deal more from Renzetti.
Special kudos go to English Hornist Andrea Overturf for his beautiful phrasing. This was a spectacular evening at San Diego Opera and I hope this fine opera will be heard more often from now on.